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Digital HemlockReview - Digital Hemlock
Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching
by Tara Brabazon
New South Wales University Press, 2003
Review by Erich von Dietze, Ph.D.
Nov 13th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 46)

I have on my shelves a number of 'must read' books. These are treasures of which I often own multiple copies and which I recommend and loan to others. Such books must be engaging and absorbing, offer me something new or challenging to think about and above all must be the kind of book I just cannot put down until I've finished reading it. Tara Brabazon's book sits in this category on my shelf.

Brabazon addresses the vexed question of what education is in this increasingly digitised age. There is a new language surrounding higher education, new metaphors and new modes of delivery including the use of the Internet (the "new deity" p.xii). In this context it is often administrators who inform teachers about teaching, modes of delivery which override quality of content; and it is where students, as customers, are given education as though it were merely another consumer product. How does higher education fit into a consumerist age of technology? The book is best summarised in Brabazon's words:

Any society that is not prepared to invest in education is demolishing its future. It will take a generation, but if we lose the capacity to create, desire, imagine and critique, we destroy the memory, intensity and inheritance of our history. Money must be set aside for educational infrastructure. The imperatives of more hospitals, more prisons and more warships will always appear more urgent and more popular at election time. Politicians can never 'win' using education, because the results are only revealed through a lifetime of social and cultural contribution to citizenship, rather than the quick fix needed for the next political debate. (p.186).

Speaking from the heart and as an experienced teacher, one can almost hear Brabazon's voice echo out of the pages. Her style varies from formal to chatty and is interspersed by well-chosen quotes, personal reflections and snippets from various email and online discussions. These reflections add much to underline her points and demonstrate the diversity and depth of her expertise. Underlying this are her passion for the adventure of education "… intellectual life is a verb rather than a noun: becoming, rather than being." (p.189) and her passionate defence of its place within society. "The teaching conducted at universities is not given the credit or attention it deserves." (p.104) "Lecturing is not a performance. It is public speaking at its most precise and advanced." (p.107)

In many ways the book is a practitioner's exploration of current educational practices in the university sector. It covers an enormous range of topics. At times it is deliberately provocative, at other times more reflective, but always leading the reader through a considered position about what it is to teach (and learn) in the age of the Internet. Brabazon questions the current fashionable uses of computer-mediated technologies in teaching and the ways in which this tends to make both content and delivery superficial. "The choices of technology must always be determined by learning goals, not through technological directives." (p.115). "Technology is not the solution to poor teaching." (p.123). "Lectures are not the problem: bad lecturers are. The computer, as muse, is not an effective replacement for the sage." (p.131). She draws out at length the irony that the very technologies that are supposed to be empowering our teaching are leading to a disempowerment of teachers. "The Internet is not a ballot box. There is no evidence to demonstrate that digitisation has permitted an education for those who have been excluded from the education system. There is little confirmation that the Internet has made a difference to poverty or powerlessness. The poverty line is being reinforced, rather than collapsed, by the information line." (p.185).

Today's teacher is increasingly an administrator -- overloaded with managing the use of online material and discussions, becoming a manager of information in an environment where students have been transformed into customers or consumers who purchase knowledge as a commodity. The problem is that "… education is not a business. Students are not consumers. Attaining a degree is not like shopping online." (p.32). While technology has presented many new opportunities, the craft of teaching has suffered in this results-orientated environment. "Teaching -- in its best sense -- does not focus on an end point." (p.26). The teacher's role is "to problematise an unquestioning allegiance to information for its own sake" (p.59).

Education is becoming increasingly skills orientated -- student output is measured by the skills they have learned / mastered. However, education must be more than training for the work place or job preparation, it is the acquisition of life-skills based on thought and reflection. Critical reading and reflection must surround teaching. "It is difficult to teach students to read. It is a taxing duty to remind scholars that good writing is not an elective component of a university degree. Sparkling writing is a gift. Sloppy prose, poor referencing and incomprehensible paragraph construction crumble the best ideas off the page" (p.47).

Passion and commitment are fundamental to the educational adventure. Education requires us to challenge and question ideas, to participate in the debates and discussions, and to develop the ability to live with confusion. "…if students treat university like a hobby then it will get them one. If they treat it like a workplace, it will get them a job. If students are in paid employment thirty hours a week, and slide into university for one day without being prepared for class and with assignments written he night before they are due, then they are not undertaking a university education; they are attending a drop-in centre with an assignment slot." (p.55)

The question is will we end up simply reading this dynamic book for enjoyment - to be entertained, or will we allow the ideas to permeate our assumptions and let ourselves be challenged by Brabazon's excursion into the world of higher education and its potential for change?

 

2003 Erich von Dietze

 

Erich von Dietze, PhD, Chaplain, University Counseling Services, Curtin University, Australia


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